Back when I was 18, I had no clue about politics (over 15 years later, I still feel pretty lost most of the time). Still, I knew it was important to register. At the time, I didn’t understand what the different parties stood for or what it even meant to register as a democrat or a republican. The only thing I remembered learning in school (the 7th grade to be exact) was how the Electoral College works. My parents rarely watched the news or talked politics at home. I registered as an independent thinking that meant I didn’t really have to choose a side. Because this allowed me to vote in most elections, I didn’t think much of changing it. Fast-forward to yesterday’s primary.
In the state of New York (and these rules vary from state to state), we have a closed primary. What that means is if you want to vote democrat, you must be registered as a democrat. I read conflicting information about the deadline for changing my registration information. Last month, I called New York State’s Board of Elections and was told the last chance to update my information was in October. The conversation ended with the woman telling me I couldn’t vote.
Although I will most definitely vote in the general election in November, I’m incredibly disappointed that I wasn’t able to participate in yesterday’s election. This caused me to reflect on my track record as a voter. As previously mentioned, I registered to vote as soon as I turned 18. Since then, I’ve failed to vote in at least one presidential election (more about that to follow), every presidential primary, and countless local elections.
I often think back to the 2008 presidential election. I was ecstatic to hear that our first African-American president would be inaugurated in the following months. I was excited. I was proud. I was hopeful. But I was also slightly disappointed, knowing that I didn’t participate in the most historic election of our nation’s history. I was out of state at the time. I failed to do my due diligence in casting my vote via an absentee ballot.
For the next election, I made sure all my information was correct and up to date. I knew the location and hours of my polling place. At a small elementary school in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I waited patiently in a line that wrapped around the block to cast my vote. I chatted it up with my neighbors, many of whom lived in the public housing that surrounded the school. I felt a sense of pride and community as we all stood together waiting to exercise a right that so many before us were denied.
Fortunately, “You can’t vote,” was something I’ve only heard once and will likely (hopefully) never hear again. As an African-American woman, had I been born in an earlier era, this is something I would have heard on a number of occasions. On a recent visit to Selma, Alabama, I was reminded of the individuals who worked tirelessly for my right to vote. On March 7, 1965, over 500 civil rights demonstrators attempted to march between Selma and Montgomery to promote Black voter registration. They were met by state troopers, nightsticks and tear gas. Over 50 demonstrators were badly injured and suffered concussions, fractured bones, cuts and bruises. The brutal attack delayed the group but didn’t deter them. Only a few weeks later on March 21st, the group (+2500 additional participants) reorganized and marched again. Honored and inspired by their perseverance, rather than blaming a flawed system, I choose to focus on my individual efforts. I plan to take a slightly different approach to voting than I have in the past.
1. Abandoning the idea of being “the perfect voter”- The idea that in order to vote, I must know every single thing about every single candidate on the ballot is overwhelming. While I plan to do my research and stay informed, I will not allow a flawed perfectionist’s approach to voting keep me from voting.
2. Keeping on top of voter registration- It’s not enough to simply register. I can and should contact my state’s board of elections with questions when I don’t understand something. When I did this recently, a very friendly woman answered my call and questions within minutes. I will also need to do a better job of keeping on top of my own “paperwork”-knowing deadlines for making changes to my registration, absentee ballot information etc.
3. Engaging with the process year-round- A close friend of mine is a news junkie. I often make fun of him for it. In being forced to watch the news with him, I’ve realized how little I know about our political process and the people involved. This no longer sits very well with me. Rather than taking the binge-watching, cramming for the upcoming election approach, I need to watch and read the news on a more consistent basis. Also, once officials are elected, it’s our right to engage with them on issues that are important to us. Even in taking a pretty relaxed approach to this, I’m surprised at how many politicians I’ve been able to meet, call and/or speak with over the years. If there are political events in my state, city or neighborhood, I can make a better effort to attend them. I’m fortunate to have colleagues who are already very involved and very much in the know when it comes to this.
All of these things may seem very idealistic, but they are not impossible. If I can find the time to be sucked into the black hole of Facebook cat, baby and dance videos, surely I can find the time to participate in my country’s political process. Here are some of the resources I’ve used over the past couple of months. This list is pretty thin as I’m still very much learning when it comes to all of this. Feel free to add additional resources (I’m especially interested in good news apps) in the comments section.
New York Board of Elections: http://www.elections.ny.gov/ #: 518.474.6220